Mobility and Infrastructure

What impact will artificial intelligence have on employee relations in the UK aviation industry?

Published on 18th Jul 2023

While there are clear benefits for employers, the introduction of AI also comes with employee relation risks that need to be carefully managed.

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Collaboration between machines and humans has always been crucial to the long-term success of the aviation industry, but what are the implications of the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) into the employment lifecycle within airlines?

AI may have an impact on employees in the airline industry in the UK and employers will want to consider how to avoid conflict between AI and employee relations (ER).  

Automation in itself is nothing new in the airline sector – which gave us the very concept of "autopilot". However, the recent leap forward in the capabilities of AI is heralding a new wave of technology-driven disruption and transformation. 

The massive change that AI is predicted to bring to the airline sector and to employers' relationships with their employees will take time to work through and are likely to involve a struggle between trade unions (including new trade unions) and employers, coupled with political change. Employers in the sector should focus on ER at the same time as they look to reap the benefits of AI. 

Addressing the conflict between AI and ER

The Trades Union Congress has called for legislation mandating that employers tell their staff when, and how, AI is implemented in their workplaces. 

The beginnings of political movement to address this potential conflict can be seen in the Artificial Intelligence (Regulation and Workers' Rights) Bill introduced into the UK House of Commons as a private members' bill in May 2023. 

While there is very little detail on this bill at present, its key aim is to protect the rights of workers working alongside AI. It seeks, first, to ensure that change is not made for change's sake and, second, that employers inform and consult with the workforce about the introduction of AI into the workplace.

Underlying these aims is a laudable desire to make sure that the benefits of AI are widely shared and are not just retained by those who deploy the AI. Employers will need to place balancing the AI/ER challenge alongside other environmental, social and governance strands, adopting a "responsible AI" approach, if they are to be successful and avoid government regulation to force them to do so.

Impact on airline workforce effectiveness 

As AI is implemented in different sectors, the skills needed to carry out jobs will continue to develop and evolve beyond the traditional skillset. AI in the aviation industry has the potential to automate certain tasks traditionally performed by human workers, particularly in areas such as aircraft maintenance, ground operations, and customer service.

AI systems are trained on vast amounts of data in order to model particular items, activities or operations. That model can then be combined with real-time data about the item, activity or operation, enabling predictive maintenance, optimising flight routes, and enhancing safety measures. This can have a positive impact on employee roles, such as pilots and air traffic controllers, by providing them with valuable insights and tools to make better decisions, improve operational efficiency, and enhance overall safety. 

This also allows employers to make informed decisions about workforce management, allowing them to optimise crew scheduling and generally streamline their workforce through improved resource allocation. Employers also often use such tools to enable time and cost savings in other contexts, including by increasing efficiency in the recruitment, onboarding, and training of their employees, as well as during employee reviews. Panellists at the 2023 Women in Aviation conference in Dubai stated that the new and evolved jobs created by AI's impact, and its effect on reducing gender bias in recruitment within aviation, may increase access to opportunities for women in what is a traditionally male-dominated sector.

What risks comes with AI implementation?

While there are clear benefits for employers, the introduction of AI also comes with risks. These include discrimination and bias, issues around transparency, liability and responsibility, data protection and relations with trade unions.

Discrimination and bias 

AI systems may inadvertently perpetuate discrimination and bias, leading to unequal treatment of employees. 

If AI algorithms are trained on biased data or contain inherent biases, those skews will flow into their outputs. They can inadvertently facilitate discriminatory decisions related to hiring, promotions, or performance evaluations. 

Employers must ensure that AI training data is properly curated to minimise the risk of biased or discriminatory content. AI systems must, moreover, be designed and outputs monitored regularly to minimise bias and comply with anti-discrimination laws.


The opacity of AI algorithms can raise concerns regarding transparency and employees' ability to understand and contest decisions made by AI systems. 

In the aviation sector, where safety-critical decisions may be involved, it becomes crucial to ensure that AI algorithms are transparent, explainable, and subject to regular meaningful human oversight.

Regulations may require employers to provide explanations for significant AI-driven decisions affecting employees, including the automated decision-making provisions under UK data protection laws.

Liability and responsibility 

AI systems may be used to automate decisions or actions that have legal consequences. Determining liability and responsibility for AI-generated outcomes can be challenging. 

Employers must clarify accountability and allocate responsibility between human employees and AI systems, particularly in safety-critical areas like air traffic management or autonomous flight operations.

Data protection 

Submitting employee data into AI models could infringe data subjects' rights. 

Employers need to ensure that they are conducting meaningful impact assessments around any AI tools which they implement and consider how they will seek to minimise the introduction of employee personal data to such tools.

Trade unions  

The integration of AI may affect the employment relationship and terms of work. 

Issues such as the implementation of AI resulting in changes to job roles, skill requirements, or working conditions may need to be negotiated through collective bargaining. Ensuring meaningful worker representation and involving trade unions in discussions related to AI implementation can help to address concerns and maintain fair employment relationships. 

Osborne Clarke comment 

History tells us that industrial revolutions do create new jobs and opportunities. 

Airlines should not be passive bystanders on AI and ER, and should grasp the opportunity to engage with their workforce to create new opportunities for collaboration between humans and machines – an area in which the aviation industry has a long and distinguished history – while doing the following:

  • Conducting due diligence before implementing any AI tools, to gain a comprehensive understanding of any risks.
  • Ensuring adequate training programs and opportunities for upskilling to support the workforce in adapting to these changes to boost productivity, satisfaction, and retention rates within the organisation, aiding long term growth.
  • Reviewing their internal AI strategy in line with the UK government's proposed principles for regulating AI and decide on the steps required to align their use of AI tools within the emerging regulatory frameworks. Businesses operating in the EU will need to consider the wide-reaching regulatory framework in the EU's proposed AI Act.
  • Preparing to hold productive dialogues with unions and with other bodies around AI implementation and its impacts on job protection, redefinition, training and skill development.  Ensuring that they are prepared to negotiate with unions to address the possible implications for roles, responsibilities and compensation.
  • Incorporating regular reviews conducted by trained personnel to ensure that the outcomes produced by AI tools in human resource functions are carefully assessed and aligned with desired objectives.
  • Remaining up to date on developments in the regulation of these technologies; in particular, keeping up to date with the UK's "pro-innovation" approach to regulation as well as any announcements from regulators about how they intend to interpret, implement and enforce the five principles proposed in the government's recent white paper. The Information Commission's Office, for example, has published extensive guidance around the interface between data protection laws and AI

* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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